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75 years of conservation in the Kalahari

This week South African National Parks (SANParks) celebrates the 75th anniversary of the old Kalahari Gemsbok National Park, which now forms part of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with Botswana.

Proclaimed on 3 July 1931, this pristine ecosystem with its rust-red sand dunes, dry riverbeds and sparse vegetation gives sanctuary to 58 mammal, 55 reptile and 300 species of birds.

The (old) Kalahari Gemsbok National Park owes its existence to the concern shown by locals over the increasing slaughter of wild animals that was taking place in the area in the early 1900s. Mr Piet Grobler, the then Minister of Lands, was attributed with initiating the idea of a park. Mainly because of its remoteness, its existence was never really threatened neither by poachers nor by World War II.

Through the dedication of the Huguenot and the Le Riche families, the park was protected and nurtured for generations. One of the earliest traders and pioneers in the area was Christoffel Le Riche. His son, Johannes, was the park warden, appointed when the park was first established.

He tackled the Kalahari wilderness with just one assistant, Gert Jannewarie and a donkey-cart. In spite of difficulties, they made good progress. Unfortunately in 1934 they both succumbed to malaria. A few days later, Johannes’ brother, Joep, took over the running of the park. Every park warden since then, until 1994, has been a Le Riche, as the job was passed on from brother to brother and from father to son.

The Botswana Gemsbok National Park was proclaimed in 1938 by what was then called Bechuanaland. Mabuasehube Game Reserve was added in 1971 and was incorporated into the Gemsbok National Park in 1992. The present day Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a result of the historic 1999 unification of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. It was officially opened on 12 May 2000. This is the first formally declared transfrontier park in Africa.

The size of the park today is quite overwhelming. The South African side comprises 9 591 km/2, with a further 28 400 km/2 on the Botswana side. This means that the park is almost twice as large as the Kruger National Park, making it one of the largest national parks in the world.

The Nossob riverbed meanders through both countries, symbolic of the natural ‘one-ness’ of the two parks. The two conservation areas encompass two of the three Kalahari eco-types. The south-western part comprises dune fields, with its unique semi-desert vegetation, and the north-eastern part comprises Kalahari plains thorn fields. The area also incorporates salt pans that play an important role in the grazing and life patterns of the game.

Progress and growth have accelerated in the 21st century and amongst the achievements was the was the restoration of over 58 000ha of land from the park to the Khoisan, Khomani San and Mier Heritage communities in 2001. The Mier and San communities played a very important role in the developmental progress and life of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and they, as field rangers, made valuable contributions to the conservation of the parks. There are many breathtaking adventure stories told about the way they captured predators and brought them back to the park. To track these animals was extremely difficult with footprints at times being just about invisible. The reputation of the tracking ability of the San people is world renowned, and the presence of the escaped lions during the tracking was an almost unbelievable experience. Karel Kleinman also known as “Oom Vet Piet” (Kudu Award Winner for the Lifetime Achievement Award), for years the lead tracker, taught the young field rangers and this is the way found and brought back many of our lions.

The completion of six new wilderness camps, Bitterpan, Grootkolk, Kalahari Tented Camp, Kielie Krankie, Urikaruus and Gharagab in 2003 and 2004 opened up a new era of stylish, unfenced and more upmarket accommodation in the Park. The three main rest camps, Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata-Mata were also upgraded over a similar time period.

In the research field Klaas Kuiper was an expert in tracking of the honeybagder.  He collected valuable information for research by translating activities of the honeybadger on the sand. The highlight of his career culminated in his contribution to the production of a documentary film titled “Honeybadgers – Snake killers of the Kalahari”

The success of the research and conservation as well as the life and growth of this Park are in many ways due to people living in harmony with nature. In this world, survival is of the utmost importance and conservation was a way of life for the people of the Kalahari. This legacy lives on...

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